Welcome to Dilla Week, in celebration of #93 in the 33 1/3 series, J Dilla’s Donuts by Jordan Ferguson (out now!). We rejoin our author in his thoughts on “best” vs. “most interesting” when it comes to Dilla.
Donuts is not J Dilla’s best work.
“Blasphemy!” you scream. “How can you say that?! You wrote an entire book on this album! You listened to it literally hundreds of times!”
Yes, I did. I continue to listen to it happily. I wanted to write about it because I find it his most interesting work. But there’s music he made that I like better.
The great thing about the 33 1/3 series is after 90+ volumes the books carry a certain cultural currency. For those of us who pay attention to these sorts of things, seeing a heretofore-unknown album on the cover of a guide is all we need to know it’s something we should check out. That happened to me when I encountered Scott Tennent’s book on Slint’s Spiderland, and that record made me wish I’d known it existed when it released; it could have changed my whole adolescence.
There’s a possibility my book might do the same thing in introducing someone to the work of J Dilla. Which would make for interesting listening since Donuts is really like nothing else he produced in his lifetime.
For day two of Dilla Week, I thought I’d offer the briefest of brief introductory surveys on the varied sounds of James Yancey.
Slum Village – “Players”
Slum Village were one of the last groups in the tradition of Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest or even NWA, where one of the members made all the music in-house (compared to today where any given album contains music culled from a roster of numerous producers). This song is revered by fans for the way it takes its sample source, “Clair” by a capella group Singers Unlimited, and uses some inspired pitch shifting and suggestive lyrical content to make your brain think the sample says “players,” when it’s actually saying “Clair.” He also loops some background vocals to fill the space usually taken up by a synth or organ. If the path to greatness is a staircase, this is the moment Dilla started running them two at a time.
Erykah Badu – “Didn’t Cha Know”
The story of the song’s become a legend unto itself: at his home studio in Detroit (he demanded people who wanted to collaborate come to him) Dilla gestured at the shelves of records lining every wall of the studio and told Badu to pick anything, he would make her a beat from it, he didn’t care what it was. She grabbed a record by jazz fusion band Tarika Blue because she liked the name, and the two of them looped it up. The restraint shown on this song is a perfect example of how Dilla could shift his methods to best suit the artist he was collaborating with, and how he was comfortable working in all sorts of emotional tones.
Busta Rhymes – “What Up”
And then, the opposite of restraint. This beat is just ignorant. The entire thing’s made out of two seconds of a psych rock song by French composers Pierre Henry and Michel Colombier paired with drums that sound like they were pulled from the dictionary entry for “boom-bap.” It’s about as far as you can get from the plush bass and keys of his 90’s material, the kind of music Dilla was talking about on the introduction to the Ruff Draft EP, “You want to bounce in your whip with that real live shit.”
J Dilla – “African Rhythms”
To get the most complete sense of Dilla as an artist, you have to look at the solo work, since that’s where he could follow his creativity wherever it went, like this short rework of Oneness of Juju’s 1975 song of the same name. Dilla took a brief drum loop of the original, but slowed it down and layered it with live percussion and a funkier bassline. When this came out on his solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit in 2001, it served notice to listeners that everything they thought they knew about him was wrong.
Q-Tip – “Move”
To me, this is the most seamless pairing of a Donuts-era aesthetic and the demands of traditional “verse-hook-verse” song structure. A miniscule slice of brass from The Jacksons’ “Dancing Machine” is looped to infinity as Michael’s voice stutters and stammers over an unstoppable march of a beat, barely getting out the song’s title. As a feat of production, it’s in the same class as complex, difficult beats like “Airworks” and “Bye.” from Donuts, yet Q-Tip’s deft maneuvering through the noise makes it a great song, and one of his best post-Tribe efforts.
This is a laughably short list, but it does manage to hit the major bullet points of his sonic progression, at least how I hear it, anyway.
For those of you interested in a deeper dive, I took the liberty of putting together a Spotify playlist of music discussed in the book, so if you’re looking to for a little audio accompaniment while you’re reading or rereading, enjoy!
J Dilla’s Donuts is available on Amazon, at Bloomsbury.com, or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.